Tante Käthe,The Accidental Nationaltrainer: Rudi Völler

When he succeeded Erich Ribbeck to become the eighth Nationaltrainer in the summer of 2000 at the age of forty, Rudolf “Rudi” Völler brought with him very little in the way of coaching experience – but plenty of well-earned respect and admiration from both his peers and the German public following a senior professional career that had spanned some seventeen seasons. It was like 1984 and Franz Beckenbauer all over again, with the added bonus that the likeable Völler was perhaps even more popular than Der Kaiser had ever been outside of Bavaria.

Having played a total of ninety times for the Nationalmannschaft between 1982 and 1994 and scoring forty-seven goals – which had at the time put him at number two on the all-time top scorers charts behind the legendary Gerd Müller – Völler was rightly regarded both at home and abroad as the ultimate penalty area poacher, perhaps second only to Müller himself. To most English-speakers Rudi Völler would become best known as the man who was sent off at the 1990 World Cup in Italy for being spat at by Frank Rijkaard; to German fans meanwhile he was affectionately known as Tante Käthe – or “Aunty Katie” – on account of his grandma-grey curly hairdo.

The Young Kicker

Born on 13th April 1960 in the town of Hanau in Hesse, Völler was a self-deprecating and quiet character – though behind this there was a sense of determination and purpose that would define his career as a player and then later as the coach of the national team. Having been introduced to local side TSV 1860 Hanau by his father Kurt along with his three brothers, Rudi quickly established himself as a prolific goalscorer – and it wasn’t long before he has started to attract the attention of visiting talent scouts.

At the age of fifteen the young striker was spotted by Hermann Nuber, the scout of local “big” side Kickers Offenbach – then in the I. Bundesliga and coached by a certain Otto Rehhagel. The club were keen to sign up him up, but these being the days where football was far from lucrative for a young player, Völler’s mother Ilse would insist that her son complete an apprenticeship before committing himself to a career as a footballer. The young man would work in the Kickers office as a clerk, before finding employment with local firm Loehr & Bromkamp GmbH (LÖBRO) – a company that manufactured automotive parts.

A short time after his sixteenth birthday Völler would join Kickers, now in the II. Bundesliga Süd having been relegated during the 1975/76 season. He would make his professional debut in November 1977 and score his first goal in early 1978. In seventy-three matches he would score eighteen goals, but soon realised that he was going nowhere at a club that had been good enough to secure a number of top ten finishes but not quite strong enough to push for a place in the top flight. The 1978/79 season would see TSV 1860 München take the II. Bundesliga Süd title, and the following year the Bavarian outfit snapped up the twenty year old Offenbacher.

1860 would survive their first season back in the top flight, but when they found themselves unable to avoid the drop the following year Völler would once more find himself in the new single-division II. Bundesliga. Here however was where he came into his own, scoring thirty-five goals in thirty-seven games for Die Löwen as they finished fourth. Following a number of excellent performances for the national Under-21 side Völler had by this time been noticed by Nationaltrainer Jupp Derwall, and his phenomenal goalscoring record would earn him a place in the first group of players selected for the World Cup finals in Spain.

Das Wunder an der Weser

The youngster wouldn’t be selected for the final squad as more established names would eventually get the nod, but the time was ripe for him to move on to bigger and better things. Völler’s rise would be accompanied by the unfortunate demise of 1860, which despite its successful fourth-place II. Bundesliga finish found itself unable to retain its professional licence; with the club now finding itself in the third-tier Oberliga Bayern, it was time for their star striker to move on – taking the long journey north to SV Werder Bremen, now under the guidance of one-time Kickers Offenbach coach Otto Rehhagel.

Völler and Bremen coach Rehhagel

Top flight football would accelerate Völler’s career, and with it the fortunes of Werder – a club that itself had only recently returned to the top flight in the 1980/81 season. The 1982/83 season would be a phenomenal one for both the club and its new striker: The team from the Weserstadion would finish second in the Bundesliga – pipped only on goal difference by northern city state rivals HSV – and Völler would score twenty-three goals in thirty-one games. By the end of 1982 the twenty-two year old had made his debut for the Nationalmannschaft, scoring his first international goal in March 1983 in the 2-1 win against Albania in Tiranë.

Between 1983 and 1987 Werder Bremen would not finish outside the top five, and Völler would continue to do his job in front of goal. In all, he would score a staggering ninety-seven goals in 137 appearances for Die Grün-Weißen. In the same period for Germany, Völler would score twenty-two times in forty-one matches, a strike rate better than a goal a game: he would score the Mannschaft’s only two goals in what what would be an unsuccessful Euro 1984, and three more in the FIFA World Cup finals in 1986, including the header that brought the score back to 2-2 in the final against Argentina in Mexico City.

Ironically, the year after Völler left Werder for Italian side AS Roma, the club would crown this most successful period in their history with their second Bundesliga title.

Rudi and Roma

If any league would prove to be a test for a foreign striker – in fact, any striker – it was the Italian Serie A. More prolific strikers had come to Italy and failed, but as he had done throughout his career Rudi Völler applied the same steely determination. Five successful years in the Italian capital yielded forty-four goals in 142 games, and during this time he continued to find the target for the Nationalmannschaft, forging a successful partnership with the young VfB Stuttgart starlet Jürgen Klinsmann.

Völler spent 5 successful years in Italy

Klinsmann and Völler would combine to score six goals during the FIFA World Cup in 1990, which would be the pinnacle in what had already been a stellar international career for the man from Hanau – and winning the final on his club’s home ground in Rome would just be the cherry on top. The 1990 World Cup would of course also be remembered for Völler’s sending off against the Netherlands – and the rather unsavoury incident involving Frank Rijkaard.

Having been made captain of the Nationalelf for the finals of the 1992 European Championships Völler’s tournament would end prematurely as a result of a freak collision and a broken arm in the opening game against the CIS, but he continued to flourish at club level. Having left Rome for the equally warm climes of Marseille in 1992, the now thirty-two year old striker continued to maintain his amazing goalscoring record, scoring twenty-four times in sixty-two appearances as helped Olympique win the European Cup, the first-ever victory for a French side in Europe’s premier club tournament.

Völler would close off his international career in the 1994 FIFA World Cup, scoring twice against Belgium in the second phase in what would be his final match in the Schwarz und Weiß, and would return back to the Bundesliga to call time on his club career. Even at the age of thirty-six he continued to maintain his amazing record: in his sixty-two games for the Rhineland Werkself, Völler would score twenty-six goals. When he finally called time on his playing career the well-travelled striker had found the back of the net 257 times in 543 matches at club level – an average of just under a goal every two games – while finishing with forty-seven strikes in ninety appearances for the Mannschaft, second only to the legendary Gerd Müller.

The Accidental Nationaltrainer

Having finished his playing career in Leverkusen Völler would remain with the club, taking on the role of director of sport. Here the magic would continue under the guidance of Christoph Daum, as Die Werkself strung together four excellent seasons that would see them finish no lower than third, though the 1999-2000 season would end in heartbreak as they missed out on a first Bundesliga title courtesy of a defeat to lowly SpVgg Unterhaching and a last-minute Bayern München equaliser in Hamburg. With Daum having been lined up for the post of Nationaltrainer following the resignation of Erich Ribbeck after the ignominious Euro 2000 campaign, Völler had been all set to continue his work at Leverkusen with a new coach: as the 1999/2000 season came to a end, he would have no idea what the future would hold.

With the new season fast approaching Daum had been all set to assume the top job, only to get caught in a drugs scandal that would rock German football and send it plunging into depths previously unfathomed. With Daum protesting his innocence the DFB kept the position open and available for him, and in looking for a caretaker found the perfect candidate: Rudi Völler. Völler didn’t even an official DFB coaching licence, but following the success of Franz Beckenbauer before him this would no longer be a barrier he’d have to negotiate. The former striker gamely took on the task, thinking that he’d be there for a year at most.

Völler the World Cup winner in 1990.

Against this chaotic backdrop, Völler grabbed hold of the reins and did what he had to do. A 4-1 thrashing of Spain in Hannover got things off to an excellent start, and this was followed by two successful FIFA World Cup qualifiers, a 2-0 win over Greece and an closely-fought 1-0 win in England – the final match at the old Wembley stadium, a ground that Völler had never graced as a player. When Christoph Daum’s contract was finally annulled by the DFB in October 2000, they didn’t go looking elsewhere: Rudi Völler, the accidental Nationaltrainer, would be offered the job on a more permanent basis.

Having had to inherit the mess left on the field by his predecessor Erich Ribbeck and off it by what would quickly become known as the Daum-Affäre, Völler was somehow able to pull things together tightly enough to ensure Germany’s passage to the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals in Japan and Korea. It would be a rocky road: after a fantastic start that had seen the team put themselves within reach of the finals with a game to spare, the ghosts of Charleroi and Rotterdam would return as they suffered a 5-1 humilation at the hands of England in München’s Olympiastadion; even then they could have made it through in first place, but a stuttering goalless draw with Finland in Gelsenkirchen meant that they had to face a dangerous Ukraine side in the play-offs.

Given that the Nationaltrainer’s job had been quite literally foisted upon him, Völler continued to have plenty of support among the German public; however he also knew that if his side were to lose to the Ukrainians the writing would be on the wall. Having secured a hard-earned 1-1 draw in Kyiv Völler’s side stormed to a 4-1 win in the return fixture in a noisy Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, inspired by a rampant Michael Ballack, a man who had matured enormously under the coach’s guidance. The Mannschaft had qualified for the finals, but nobody would give them much of a hope: however Rudi Völler – together with Ballack and skipper Oliver Kahn – had other ideas.

When the finals began Germany got off to a stunning start, thrashing minnows Saudi Arabia 8-0 with Miroslav Klose – another man who was central to Völler’s plans – scoring a superb hat-trick. A tightly-fought 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland was followed by a 2-0 win over Cameroon, and the Mannschaft had swept into the second phase. From that point on it would be a series of close-run affairs, as Völler’s side played to their strengths and out-muscled their opponents. A last-gasp win over Paraguay was followed by a lucky quarter-final win over a strong United States side, and the semi-final saw the team defeat a South Korean team that had already – if controversially – disposed of European heavyweights Italy and Spain.

Many commentators and pundits complained bitterly about Germany making the final, but the fact remained that they had succeeded where others had failed. They had avoided the silliness that had led to Italy’s defeat by the Koreans, and displayed a level of sacrifice that was best illustrated by Ballack’s goal-saving tackle that earned him a yellow card that would exclude him from the showpiece in Yokohama. Völler lead the team as a team – and it was his dignity in both victory and defeat that helped cement the affection felt for him back home in Germany. The Mannschaft’s miracle run would come to an end in the final against Brazil, but Völler and his team would be welcomed home as heroes.

Völler had in many ways performed miracles with what was a limited German side bereft of any real quality; he had taken what could best be described as a rabble and turned them into a side that had reached the World Cup final, something that even his strongest supporters and wellwishers would never have thought possible. While the media had been critical of Völler for his somewhat laid-back training methods and his team for their highly workmanlike approach – not to say their seemingly endless run of lucky breaks – this negativity was not shared by the majority of the fans back in Germany. Many supporters had hoped for a noble quarter-final exit at best, and to progress all the way to the final was seen as nothing short of a miracle.

While the side that made the final in 2002 had played football that had been qualitatively no different from that played in 1982 under Jupp Derwall, there were a number of striking differences. Firstly, the team was nowhere near as talented and little was really expected of them; secondly, while the tactics may have been dour, the spirit of the squad was completely different – there was none of the undercurrent of nastiness that had plagued the campaign in Spain twenty years earlier. While Derwall had been disliked by large sections of the fanbase, Rudi Völler was universally loved.

No longer the Quiet Man

Völler might have been loved by the German public, but things were never the same with the media – which would have turned their knives on Mother Teresa if given the slightest sniff of an opportunity. The criticism of the Nationaltrainer soon picked up again during the qualification campaign for Euro 2004, and this soon came to a head live on state television. Following what had been a frustrating goalless draw in Iceland the usually serene Völler turned on his critics in no uncertain terms, directing his ire at presenter Gerhard Delling and professional-turned-pundit Günter Netzer who had both been particularly disparaging in their post-match analysis. Völler pulled no punches in saying that he had had enough of “all of the shit” that had been flung in his direction, and saved a number of choice words for Netzer in particular.

The man conducting the interview, the veteran presenter Waldemar Hartmann, was not spared either; caught directly in the crossfire of Völler’s invective, he was accused of drinking three wheat beers in order to make unjustified remarks about the team. Völler apologised for this remark at the end of the interview, and in what became the German equivalent of Stuart Pearce and Gareth Southgate’s Pizza Hut adverts the genial Hartmann would later star in a series of adverts for Paulaner Weißbier.

The team would qualify for the finals following a better set of results that included a 3-0 win over the Icelanders, but as the tournament approached the coach suffered yet another humiliating setback when his side suffered yet another catastrophic 5-1 thrashing, this time at the hands of Romania in Bucharest. Were it not for a late consolation goal two minutes from time by a young Phillip Lahm – then making his third appearance in the Nationaltrikot – it would have been the heaviest defeat since the 8-3 loss to Hungary fifty years earlier. The Romanians had not even reached the finals; if Völler had decided to throw in the towel there and then, nobody would have blamed him.

Völler's snarl matches most of Germany's performance.

Euro 2004 came just a little too early for Rudi Völler. There were very few quality players at his disposal who could be described as being at the peak of their powers – Ballack being one of the few exceptions – and the youngsters were not quite there yet. Völler had certainly set a clear precedent in selecting younger players, but the side he had put together for Euro 2004 was still something of a work in progress. An unlucky 1-1 draw with old rivals the Netherlands was followed by a dire goalless stalemate against an obdurate Latvian side, and having had to beat a reserve Czech team to progress Völler’s side slumped to a 2-1 defeat having taken the lead with one of the goals of the tournament from Michael Ballack.

For the second time in successive European Championship finals Germany had been eliminated in the opening group phase, and the luck that had carried Völler’s team through to the World Cup final two years later had clearly eluded them. Although the final outcome would be identical to four years previously, it was not seen as a catastrophe: watching all three matches again, it is clear that the team were never really outplayed at any stage and were genuinely unlucky. They could very well have held their lead against the Dutch, and on another day would have taken at least once chance against the Latvians, results that would have taken them through to the quarter-finals irrespective of the result against the Czechs. For once, Rudi’s magic touch had deserted him.

Völler found himself having to work with the best player material that was available to him, and to his credit was responsible for taking the hitherto unprecedented step of giving youngsters such as Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski their international debuts before they had reached the age of twenty. It was also Völler who truly kickstarted the career of the mercurial Michael Ballack, transforming him from the criminally underused bit-part player he had been under Ribbeck into the driving force of the team.

Unlike his predecessor Erich Ribbeck and to a lesser extent Berti Vogts, Rudi Völler was largely forgiven for any bad results. The German public knew that he had been trying to do as good as job as possible with limited resources, and he remained a much-loved character and a genuine footballing hero. Even his out of character outburst didn’t serve to destroy his credibility; if anything, it proved that he actually cared deeply about his position and his responsibility to both the team and the watching public. Indeed, it could be argued that this display of candour and honesty in the face of constant criticism even helped to strengthen his reputation.

The early exit at Euro 2004 brought closure to Rudi Völler’s career as national coach; his decision to resign had been met with surprise by DFB president Gerhard Mayer-Vorfelder who had wanted him to stay on until the World Cup in 2006, but Völler himself – after initially insisting that he wanted to fulfil his contract – decided to call time. Perhaps he was thinking of having to engage in another live debate with Delling and Netzer.

Some seven years after his resignation as Nationaltrainer Völler’s methods would become the subject of a minor media furore, when full-back Philipp Lahm – who had been at the time one of the new young players in the side – described his regime as “amazingly relaxed” and “funny, and totally random”. In his autobiography Der feine Unterschied: Wie man heute Spitzenfussballer wird (“The subtle difference: How one becomes a top footballer today”), Lahm alleged that rather than undergoing a strict programme the team would do some light training for a hour before before being left to “play on their Playstations”.

Of course, such revelations were far from original: many observers were more than aware of the fact that it had been Völler’s deliberate intention to create a more player-friendly atmosphere – in contrast to his predecessor Erich Ribbeck, whose more rigid approach and methods had been far from successful. One can only assume that Lahm – then at Stuttgart under the notoriously hardline Felix “Quälix” Magath – had suffered something of a training culture-shock.

Following his resignation as Nationaltrainer after Euro 2004 Rudi Völler experienced a very brief stint in Italy as coach of former club AS Roma before returning to Leverkusen, where after a short spell as caretaker coach was reappointed to the post of director of sport – a position he still holds today.

International Career Record as Player (1982-1994)

Total matches: 90
Total goals: 47

Tournament Record as Player

UEFA European Championship France 1984 – First Phase (2 goals)
FIFA World Cup Mexico 1986 – Runners-up (3 goals)
UEFA European Championship Germany 1988 – Semi-finalists (2 goals)
FIFA World Cup Italy 1990 – Champions (3 goals)
UEFA European Championship Sweden 1992 – Runners-up
FIFA World Cup United States 1994 – Quarter-finalists (2 goals)

Career Record as Coach

Total matches: 53
Wins: 29 (54.7%)
Draws: 11 (20.8%)
Defeats: 13 (24.5%)
Goals For (goals scored per game): 109 (2.06)
Goals Against (goals conceded per game): 57 (1.08)

Competitive matches: 28
Wins: 16 (57.1%)
Draws: 9 (32.1%)
Defeats: 3 (10.7%)
Goals For (goals scored per game): 48 (1.71)
Goals Against (goals conceded per game): 22 (0.79)

Friendly matches: 25
Wins: 13 (52%)
Draws: 2 (8%)
Defeats: 10 (40%)
Goals For (goals scored per game): 61 (2.44)
Goals Against (goals conceded per game): 35 (1.40)

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London-based but with his heart firmly in Fröttmaning, Rick Joshua's love of German football goes back more than thirty years and has witnessed everything from the pain of Spain '82 and the glory of Italia '90 to the sheer desolation of Euro 2000. This has all been encapsulated in the encyclopaedic Schwarz und Weiß website and blog, which at some three hundred or so pages is still not complete. Should you wish to disturb him, you can get in touch with Rick on Twitter @fussballchef. This carries a double meaning, as he can prepare a mean Obazda too.

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